Young evangelical leader Gabe Lyons believes that the death of Christian America is a good thing because it makes way for a new generation of believers, which he calls the Next Christians.
The Christian Post met up with Lyons, co-founder of the Catalyst conference and co-author of UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity and Why it Matters, at the recent Catalyst conference in Atlanta to discuss his new book, The Next Christians: The Good News About the End of Christian America.
The book, released Oct. 5, takes an optimistic look at the next generation of American Christians that seeks to engage the world and restore all parts of society as God intended when He created the universe.
The following are excerpts from the interview:
CP: Why do you think the end of Christian America would not result in a spiritual vacuum like in Europe? What makes America different?
Lyons: I think the end of Christian America, as I'm describing it, is really an end of the last few decades of a sort of Christian dominance in the power and position of culture, mostly the political sector. When you look at the Religious Right, you see over the last 30 years how much that has dominated how Christians see the world. That has driven cultural perception.
The reason why it (America's Christianity) is different [than Europe's] is because the Church is alive in America. The Church is not like in Europe where the Church is not a part of the vibrant fabric of society. In America it is very much alive and part of society.
Seventy-six percent identify themselves as Christian in our country. The reality is there can be a resurgence [in the faith] to give them real meaning and hope, which might not be found in a political, morality-based message to the world about what Christians are, what they believe in, and how we should be involved in our culture.
Christians are now forced to get back into the fabric of life in every channel – not just the political channel, but in media, business, social sector, education. We are forced, in a good way, to just play out our faith there and not get caught up or swept away in visions of power, where we can exert our view of the world and everybody else just needs to conform to it.
They (Next Christians) are just looking for how the Church can be a Church that relates to people in our world, who are pretty skeptical of Christians now as a result of the backlash of the Religious Right.
CP: What do you mean by the term "restoration"? How does the idea of restoration shape the worldview of the Next Christian?
Lyons: Restoration is the idea of shalom – the idea of putting things back together that are broken, to restore, to repair. The Next Christians see the whole story throughout scripture of creation where in the beginning everything was good; the fall separating us from God; redemption coming through Jesus Christ and his death and resurrection; and His calling for us to be a partner with him in renewing and restoring all things.
This next generation understands restoration as connected to the gospel. They are motivated by the fact that Jesus restored their own soul and is constantly in the process of restoring them. That is driving them to go out in the world to fix things that [which] they come into contact with that are broken. When you look back to the first universities, hospitals, the advancements in societies, Christians were doing it. They had this mentality of restoration for centuries … that somebody should be able to get medical care when they are sick. We need to create something that the world can interact with that will help them get restored, and not just spiritually. So this next generation is really capturing the 'both/and' of the message. That it is restoration of spiritual things but also to very physical, tangible acts that the rest of the world gets to interact with.
CP: What you wrote about conversion – and how it should not take precedent over doing good – could hit a nerve with some Christians. How would you address their concern?
Lyons: I think both are important. As John Stott, an evangelical leader in London, said, conversions and good works are perfect dance partners. You can't have one without the other. We should not think in terms of if one is better than the other, but understand that it is like a good marriage. You don't have a good marriage if you are trying to get 50 percent and your wife is trying to give 50 percent, and you're always trying to measure that out. You are both called to give 100 percent and that's where a good marriage comes.
In the same way, [Apostle] James said true religion is not just words but also deeds. So we are supposed to embody both and realize conversion of people come through the Holy Spirit and not through our own effort. We do have responsibilities to share our faith, but that happens much more naturally when we're in relationship with people that know us and trust us. I think evangelism is happening in this generation when that has been the way it's presented and embodied.
CP: Do you foresee conflict within the Christian body between the Next Christians and their predecessors?
Lyons: Only if they (Next Christians) are misunderstood. That is what I aim to do with this book – to let the older generation understand what is going on here. The skepticism can be that the next generation is just becoming more liberal unless you really understand what is going on much deeper. They actually are not giving up the gospel, but the work of restoration is rooted in the gospel. I think this can give a lot of confidence to the older generation to know that this is a generation that is recovering both ends of this and they're not restricted by the debate of the last century between the liberal social understanding of the gospel and building utopia, and how that comes into conflict with whether we need to be proclaiming the name of Christ. They're actually doing these two things and understand[ing] that they are so integral, and you can't separate them.
CP: What would you advise churches to do in light of the rising Next Christians? How can they help ensure harmony within the body of Christ?
Lyons: I would say to welcome conversations and to not assume that we understand what one another is thinking. We have to commit to be in conversation. I also think this book can provide leaders with real practical examples, principles, characteristics of what is happening in the next generation and how they can be part of the Church. I think the restorers' language and characteristics give us new language and nomenclature to talk together rather than assume that the older generation is not interested in this or the younger generation is only interested in good works. Actually both [generations] are desiring the same things and they just need to commit to understanding one another. I think many times we broad brush everything and we need to understand that that is not how the world works.
CP: What effect will the Next Christians have on mission models? If the Next Christians believe ministry is a part of everyday life, how will they perceive the need for mission-sending agencies?
Lyons: I think the need for mission-sending agency is changing a great deal now with agencies sending missionaries to America. When you talk about cross-cultural missions, the purpose of that missionary or that mission is to equip people who are in that community to carry on their own mission. It is not just the missionary being the one that goes and they are just there to preach the gospel.
I think we can learn a lot from mission-sending agencies with the way they do missions. They go and many times start schools, doctors' offices, they actually try to understand the fabric of culture they are about to go into and then they embody the gospel and through that conversations naturally erupt because of the responsibility to physically show up. So I think we can learn from mission-sending agencies in America in this next generation that that is what the church is, to help people think through what schools need to be built, what laws need to be shored up, how to equip the next generation to see those opportunities to engage people where they are at and to think that missions is not just sending to other countries but sending to our own neighborhoods.